Chen Guangcheng and Bo Xilai represent the two poles of the Chinese political spectrum. Mr. Chen is a blind, self-taught lawyer and provincial activist for human rights who finds himself in a life-and-death struggle to reinterpret the system. Mr. Bo is a pampered scion of a famous Communist family, until recently a successful party apparatchik taking full advantage of systemic corruption but who is now facing censure.
Still, there are similarities between the two men. Both now likely face obscurity: Mr. Bo as a cashiered bureaucrat caught in the toils of his wife's "business" deals, which apparently included murdering a foreign businessman. Mr. Chen, by following dozens of other human rights heroes exiled to the West where, like them, he henceforth will exert little influence on events inside the Middle Kingdom.
Talking heads have made much of Mr. Bo's notoriety impacting inner-party factional struggles. Yet the "Zhongnanhaiologists" (those seeking to divine movements inside Chinese Communist Party's headquarters) might well have overintellectualized the situation. Like Kremlinologists of old - most of whom did not foresee the sudden Soviet implosion despite their Talmudic analyses - they speculate on ideological interplay within the party. That obscures a basic truth: Corruption in every form has reached such dimensions that junior comrades must make individual "deals" on all sides to survive, much less to scrabble up the party ladder. When an ambitious rising star trips up, as Mr. Bo did, the tentacles of their plotting lead in all directions.
That is perhaps what outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, a wily leader who himself has been on all sides of all issues, meant when he recently warned against a return to the chaos of the Great Cultural Revolution in Mao Zedong's declining years. That leadership feud, with its rival hit squads recruited among disaffected youths, almost brought down the regime. Mr. Wen says there must be "reform," but how does one reform a one-party regime built on indispensable repression?
Mr. Chen fought that tyranny with a subtle if inevitably self-defeating strategy: He challenged Beijing to honor the lofty commitments made in its formal declarations and to rein in increasingly oppressive local party cadre. But like those pre-World War II Stalinoid Western intellectuals who constantly ballyhooed the 1936 Soviet Constitution as the most liberal in the world, Mr. Chen ultimately was misreading the situation. The old Russian lament "If the czar only knew," suggesting that czarist, then Soviet, and now Chinese communist tyranny are all a function of local misrule rather than central government policy, reflects a fantasy that gives dissidents like Mr. Chen hope but in the end little surcease.
What connects the separate but symptomatic dramas of Mr. Chen and Mr. Bo is an authoritarian regime's failure to deal with them promptly and adequately as it approaches a difficult transition from one aging leadership generation to another this fall. The largest, most technologically advanced and determined effort to suppress political dissidence the world has ever seen - the so-called "Great Firewall of China" - could not stop Internet bloggers dragging a Communist Party chieftain through his own mud. In Mr. Chen's case, Beijing initially failed to replicate successes choking off individual dissidents by bundling them off to relative silence in the West.
The result was an international incident, apparently as much produced by differences inside the party security apparatus as by incompetence on the part of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Department of State. Had the familiar scenario played out, Mr. Chen would have fled the country quickly, the human rights "industry" in the U.S. would have crowed, and the Chinese authorities would have removed an irritant, all the while claiming cooperation with Washington and claiming movement toward "reform." That now looks to be what will happen - belatedly.
Granted the scandal exploded at a most unpropitious moment, during a highly touted meeting with American officials in Beijing kowtowing in another ostensible effort to resolve larger differences over trade, finance and international trouble spots. But, whatever the cause, the system, at least for a time, failed spectacularly.
That failure poses the real question of the hour: Are we seeing the demise of the ad hoc policies that facilitated inordinate economic progress by opening China to international development? Have Western optimists been correct in arguing that China could not continue its economic gains without concessions to liberal politics? And are we seeing the beginnings of the collapse of the China Model - a template for modernization that held fast to traditional "Oriental despotism" while simultaneously enriched, and presumably protected, by the newest world-class technology?
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.